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Time for Turkey to stand up against Islamic State: analysts

Analysts in Washington say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused of turning a blind eye to the rise of the Islamic State, should use the opportunity of his new role and government for a fresh start in fighting the jihadist militants.

WASHINGTON: Questions are being raised about Turkey's role in the rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS).

Newly elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused of turning a blind eye to the fast expansion of radical groups while he served as Turkey's Prime Minister. Analysts say he must now take the opportunity to extinguish the threat and repair battered relations with the United States.

Just 15 months ago, US President Barack Obama hailed America's valued partnership with Turkey. Back then, he said: "As always, the United States stands with you as you defend your nation against terrorism."

Now, with the advance of the Islamic State, the situation in the ground has changed as have relations between Washington and Ankara. Turkey turned a blind eye to the rise of the Sunni militants, in part because they share a faith. Washington analysts say this has caused problems for Turkey's allies and neighbours.

"Some of them will say that maybe Turkey's not supporting them directly, but what they all agree is that Turkey is giving them a safe haven - free space in which to organise and operate and that itself has been a problem in the past,” said Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Insittute. “Ultimately, Turkey has a lot to answer for when it comes to the rise of the Islamic State."

However, Turkey's hands may be tied - 49 Turkish diplomats and three children are in the custody of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has executed Western journalists. President Erdogan has warned against making provocative statements regarding the group.

"At the end of June, there were feature stories in the Turkish Press about shops in Istanbul selling ISIS memorabilia and openly talking about how the money was going to contribute to the ISIS cause,” said Rubin. “Despite the fact that more than 40 Turks are being held hostage in Iraq including the consul to Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to describe ISIS as a terrorist group."

The Obama administration said it will not be deterred by the IS murders of American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Fowley and promised to hold them accountable. The US airstrikes continue but some warn that military action could mean Washington is making the same mistake Istanbul is - taking sides.

"This has created a huge situation where trying to respond militarily has simply mixed up the alliances the US claims to care about,” said Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies. “In Iraq, it is a similar situation. The Iraqi bombings by the US will put the US in a situation where Iraqi Sunnis will see it as bombing in support of the Kurds and the Shiites against the Sunnis. And so it is making the US a major player in these sectarian civil wars."

'NO PROBLEMS WITH NEIGHBOURS'

Turkey's foreign policy has been described as "No problems with Neighbours". But analysts in Washington say President Erdogan has miscalculated and his foreign policy has imploded.

"Hopefully President Erdogan has learned from past mistakes to not to give ... extremists an easy ride when it comes to foreign policy,” said Jim Phillips from The Heritage Foundation. “While he may have supported many of those groups when they were focused on the Assad regime, now we've seen them metastasise to the point where they pose a threat not only to Assad but to Turkey and to other countries in the region."

One of the first Obama administration officials to interact with the new Turkish government under President Erdogan will be US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.

"Turkey has a stake here. We understand that. It's an important partner in the region, a NATO ally,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a US military spokesman. “The Turkish government has concerns about foreign fighters, and right they should, and we're going there next week, and I have no doubt that this will be a topic of discussion between Secretary Hagel and his counterpart."

The Obama administration believes that Turkey is trying to address the concerns about the Islamic State as best they can. But others in Washington think that President Erdogan should take his new role and new government as an opportunity for a fresh start in fighting the jihadist militants. 

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